A taste of Norway with author and journalist John McGhie
by Sabina Weston
John McGhie, journalist and writer, opens the door to his Whitstable home and invites us to throw our coats on the sofa. We are told to make ourselves comfortable in the beautiful, rustic kitchen, which dictates the house’s cottage-y aesthetic. He opens a little oven to reveal his signature dish and sets it on the sunlit kitchen table, which is placed under a framed picture of the Californian hills.
Janssons frestelse is a perfect comfort dish for cold winter evenings. Usually eaten on Christmas Eve in Norway, its warm aroma suggesting snowy nights, is in stark contrast to the sunny room.
“Janssons frestelse means ‘Jansson’s temptation’. That’s a dish with potatoes, cream, and anchovies. You put it in the oven and it melts away — it’s delicious!” he says, and offers us a portion. Then seconds. Soon, the dish is nothing but a tasty memory, and we have not even started the interview yet.
“This is not a dish you eat in the summer,” says McGhie. “I wouldn’t. Would you eat this in the summer? I would prefer a salad.”
“Depends what a Norwegian summer is like,” replies Bethan Kapur, our art director.
"Well, they’re light, for a start. You know, it’s dark in the winter and Norwegian summers are 23 hours of sun. The sun doesn’t go down, until for a short time around mid-June, June 23rd — Brexit Day. And my birthday, which has been spoiled for ever. Thank you, Farage. Anyway, midsummer night is a big deal in Norway. There’s a big feast and everyone will go to the coast into little huts, the hytte, and sit outside. You have big tables lit with candles and eat crayfish, and salmon, and herring, and drink plenty of aquavit all night,” he says, and offers us a shot.
We all say “Skål!” (“Cheers!”) and drink up. Aquavit, which is called akevitt in Norwegian, strongly resembles Polish vodka. Except it tastes much better paired with potatoes and anchovies.
“My family history of Janssons frestelse is that this is, of course, a dish that my mother used to cook when I was little. This and two or three other Norwegian dishes she would serve us,” he explains. The other two are reindeer steak and gravlax. “Gravlax is… well, you buy a salmon. Raw. And then you cut the fillet in half, so you got the two sides. You put salt in it, and sugar, and pepper, and masses of fresh dill. Masses. And then you pour aquavit over it. You put the two halves together, you bind it up, and shove it in the freezer and leave it there for three days. It becomes cured. You take it out, defrost, and cut it very thinly, and served with a mustard-like sauce — it’s very nice! Now I’m hungry again.”
I ask him whether he makes it often.
“No, it’s a special dish. It’s a real pain in the ass, to make it every other day. But you can buy it at any good fish shop nowadays,” he replies.
I ask him where he gets reindeer steak outside of Norway.
“You can buy it at specialist butchers! There’s actually a place in Canterbury which sells it. But the sauce that my mother used to make with venison, as that’s what reindeer steak is, is very rich and thick. It’s mushrooms, cream, brandy, and this Norwegian cheese called gjetost, which is brown goat’s cheese, you know…”
I say that I never tasted it and he gasps. He gets up and walks up to the fridge. Bethan and I exchange puzzled glances before McGhie returns with a block of brown cheese wrapped in paper. It looks like toffee. He introduces it as gjetost and encourages us to try a slice. It is sweet and salty at the same time. Like goat cheese, but with a caramel tinge to it. Delicious.
“I make sandwiches with it, for my lunch. That’s a very Norwegian lunch,” he explains. “That would be with boller, which are balls of bread — rolls. But you have to have it very thin as it is quite strong.”
McGhie tells us about his childhood, his Norwegian family, and how his mother was a resistance fighter in Norway during the Second World War. She met his father, who was fighting in the British Army, in the last days of the war.
In his 2017 novel, White Highlands, he explores the idea of returning to one’s place of origin and retracing one’s ancestor’s role in a local conflict. I ask him whether he sought inspiration for this motif in his personal experience.
“I didn’t, funny enough. Or, if I did, it was unconscious,” he says. “The much more conscious influence was to explore the past and see how it has a direct impact on the presence, like the old expression: you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from. In this country particularly, there is a sense of, I’ll say, denial of our imperial, colonial past. But I don’t think it is necessarily denial, I think it’s just ignorance. For you to deny something, you have to know it first.”
The conversation shifts to the impact that this ignorance has on Brexit.
“Some people hark back to this kind of fake past: ‘We used to trade with the world! We used to be on top of everything! We were a big player! We just have to leave Europe and we will be that again!’ Um, no. Because we did trade with the rest of the world, yes, we did — at the end of a bayonet. You don’t learn that in schools. You only learn about Tudors and the Second World War, seems to me.”
He tells me about the Reparations Campaign in Kenya, which he covered in a BBC documentary, “White Terror”, back in 2002. The documentary is what ultimately inspired him to write White Highlands, which was published last year.
I ask him about his experience of writing from a female viewpoint, as White Highlands is told from the perspective of Sam, a young woman who travels to Kenya to explore her deceased grandfather’s role in the 1950s Mau Mau uprising.
“I was asked this the other day! I was doing a talk and one of the women said: ‘Look, how do you know? What makes you think that a young woman would stop at the airport to buy some lipstick?’ Because I’ve seen it done! I know women who have done that! Some women do that, some women don’t. But Sam wanted to do that.”
I tell him how impressed I am that White Highlands is a book which does not treat the female protagonist’s appearance as centre-stage as most books written by men would. McGhie nods, probably in agreement.
“That’s a very interesting point,” he says. “I don’t think I even gave Sam a hair colour.”
We talk about a new book that he is writing, which is set in Australia and Southeast Asia. As we get up to leave, I notice a pawprint engraved on one of the kitchen floor tiles. I ask him whether he owns a dog.
“Yes. It’s buried under that very tile,” he replies, and starts laughing at mine and Bethan’s shocked expressions.
“I’m joking! You girls are so gullible!” he says and, still laughing, sees us to the front door.